Review by Brittany Crowell
“What if I said I am not what you think you see,” the actor-human who plays the Wolf in Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play states after jumping playfully through a filing cabinet inset in the amalgam of items lining one side of MCC Theater’s Susan & Ronald Frankel stage. “… The truth is a wobbly thing,” he continues, “I am not what you see. I am the wolf.” The wolf, portrayed athletically by a playful and endearing Mitchell Winter then showcases a wolf t-shirt beneath his hoodie and dons a beanie cap with ears to become the wolf and (with the help of a charming puppet designed by Amanda Villalobos) Jeeun, a six-year-old South Korean boy.
Dustin Wills’ direction for the piece pushes the boundaries of theatricality, utilizing the full space and creating a beautiful mess across the stage as the actors repurpose various props and objects with child-like imagination. This is Jeeun’s world and in it cereal is made of colorful pom poms and paperclips and the refrigerator is also a telephone and a front door. You-Shin Chen’s set design (along with the prop team led by Patricia Marjorie) clutters the space just enough to create a charming playground for Willis’ direction and Jeeun’s imagination as boxing rings come in from the ceiling and balloons shift (and pop!) about the set. Cardboard forts shine through the darkness in Barbara Samuel’s lighting design, where flashlights and reading lamps serve to highlight as much as line-sets of old-fashioned lights flying in to create the boxing ring for the big match.
Within this playground, the actors portray the story of Jeeun, who has been brought to the US and is being sold by his adopted parents on a Yahoo message board. Jeeun is found and (illegally) adopted by Robin and Ash a queer couple who take him in via an exchanged right of attorney. Ash, played beautifully and heartbreakingly by Esco Jouléy with warmth and wisdom beneath a guarded exterior, didn’t want to adopt the boy to begin with, but begins to warm to him as the story progresses. Robin, who found the boy and brought him into their home, is played with ferocity of heart by Nicole Villamil, as she takes the ring to fight prejudice and relatives in order to hold her family together. Robin’s brother Ryan, played by Brian Quijada, is fighting to keep the status quo and doesn’t appreciate how young Jeeun has changed things, allowing his bigotry and selfishness to get between him and embracing the new family and bringing him closer to the troubled and pining adopted father of the boy, Peter (played with irksome cajoling by Christopher Bannow).
While the idea of someone posting their child on a yahoo message board and sending them away may feel outrageous (as with someone adopting a child and bringing them into their home from an online post), Megan Twohey reports otherwise in Reuter’s ‘The Child Exchange: Americans Use the Internet To Abandon Children Adopted from Overseas.’ ‘Wolf Play’ also exposes the difficulties LGBTQ+ couples face in the adoption circuit; Only 27 states and one territory have laws or policies that expressly prohibit discrimination in adoption based on sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a non-profit that works to achieve equality for all.
Jung’s piece is as fun, playful, theatrical and funny as it is troubling and exposing. It is easy to open your heart to this wolf, to relate to him and admire his strength; to fall in love with Robin’s ferocity for family and to wilt over Ash’s softening around the edges for their new son. ‘Wolf Play’ hits hard and breaks your heart for each character and what they’re struggling for and reminds you that the fantastical world the play has created around you may be “not what you think you see” but “exactly what you think you see” at the same time.
WOLF PLAY – by Hansol Jung; directed by Dustin Wills
FEATURING – Christopher Bannow (Peter); Esco Jouléy (Ash); Brian Quijada (Ryan); Nicole Villamil (Robin); Mitchell Winter (Wolf)
Scenic design by You-Shin Chen; costumes by Enver Chakartash; lighting by Barbara Samuels; sound by Kate Marvin; puppet by Amanda Villalobos; props y Patricia Marjorie; fight direction by Hannah “Rock” Roccisano.
SOHO REP’s Wolf Play is produced by MCC Theater: Bernie Telsey & Will Cantler, artistic directors; Blake West, executive direction; in collaboration with Ma-Yi Theater company. Through March 19, 2023 at the Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater (511 W 52nd St). https://mcctheater.org